'Some Fijians I'd never seen in my life are just absolute freak athletes'
George Bridge would have hoped some years ago to have been in France for the 2023 Rugby World Cup wearing an Altrad-sponsored jersey. He got his wish, except it’s not the shirt of the famed All Blacks that is on his back in the Mediterranean sun.
Instead, it’s the jersey belonging to Montpellier, the 2022 Top 14 champions he hooked up with last November after he fell down the pecking order in Ian Foster’s Test squad and figured it would be best to fly the coup at the age of 27 rather than battle on in New Zealand in the hope of somehow getting himself back in the frame for France 2023.
Instead of playing at the finals, Bridge has been watching and he was at Stade de France on September 8 to see the All Blacks give way in the second half to tournament hosts France.
It was 10 months ago when he last touched base with RugbyPass, chatting from his hotel room in London in the lead-up to representing the Barbarians in their exhibition match against an All Blacks XV at Tottenham.
Bridge had made the trip with two cases and a set of golf clubs having finished up at the Crusaders to start a new life on the other side of the world. He’d never been to Montpellier; his deal had been negotiated via Skype, so he was bracing himself for a giant leap out of his comfort zone and into the unknown.
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So, how has his near first full year of his two-and-a-half-year deal played out? “Loving it,” he enthused to RugbyPass, checking in from the south coast before an appearance on this week’s Rugby After Hours episode.
“Settled in really well. I arrived just as winter was coming but still thought it was a really cool place and then summer came around and it just stayed to boom. It’s an amazing place. Pretty fortunate with the team.
“There is a really good bunch of foreigners there, all the French lads are really good guys as well. We probably didn’t have the season we would have liked last season but we have got some new coaching staff for this season and there is a lot of good energy leading into the season. It’s a bit disrupted at the moment but when things start to pick up, we’re looking forward to rocking into it.”
That disruption is interesting. With the club game on hold in France due to the country staging the Rugby World Cup, officials decided to cram in three rounds of Top 14 fixtures before the finals started and the league won’t resume until October 29, the weekend of the Rugby World Cup final.
“We did our pre-season, got through three games, had a week-and-a-bit off at the start of the World Cup and now we are back into pretty much another pre-season because Top 14 is not playing during the World Cup.
“We have got two more weeks of training and then we get another week off, then we have a camp in Corsica which will be quite nice, then another week of training and then we are back into it by then. It’s a funny old time but it is what it is.
“It’s been a different pre-season this time in the heat of a European summer but I probably needed it. I had a decent break after the end of the Top 14, did a fair bit of traveling around the Greek islands, Paros and Milos were beautiful spots. It was very much like island time, sort of backpacking a wee bit.
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“Everywhere we went was beautiful but those were probably up there. I did that and not a lot of training, so I needed to get back into shape a wee bit so it [pre-season] was good for me.”
Bridge scored four tries in his 13 starts last term. How did that compare to the rugby he knew so well with the Crusaders? “It’s a different the footy over here to back home. I find myself chasing a lot of kicks that is for sure,” he chuckled.
“The ruck speed is a lot slower which leaves defences to get pretty well set which creates that bit more physicality and whatnot that everyone talks about. It’s just different. I’m still sort of figuring out how I can influence the game and whatnot but it has been a good challenge so far and looking forward to getting a full season ahead of me.”
So was there a welcome to France introductory incident on the pitch? “Not a specific moment but just the players that are within the Top 14, I was marking Cheslin (Kolbe), (Josua) Tuisova and players like that, then some other Fijians that I had never seen in my life that are just absolute freak athletes as well. Just the competitiveness of the competition, it has been amazing.”
Bridge arrived in France not knowing the language. At school, he never envisaged he would wind up making his living in Europe, but he is getting by, a situation helped by the arrival this season of an ex-England assistant.
“It’s coming along, coming along. My vocabulary is definitely growing but it is tough to put a sentence together, the sentence structure is back to front to what we’re used to and the French speak very quickly.
“We have got Richard Cockerill, who is our coach now, and he speaks French to us and I can understand him perfectly fine because he speaks English-French. When the French fellas are talking away I can pick up on words and whatnot but geez, they can speak quickly.”
And what’s it like working for Altrad at Montpellier? “Yeah, he is pretty involved, he is at all of our home games. He will come into the shed. He is very soft-spoken, a really nice guy. I didn’t know what to expect but he is a good man to talk to.”
Enough of the club chat, let’s switch to the hot topic World Cup and the chances of glory for the All Blacks despite their opening night defeat in Paris. “There is still a lot of rugby to go,” insisted Bridge, who played in the 2019 campaign that ended in semi-final defeat to England.
“I was at Stade de France watching that first game and thought in that first half they looked pretty sharp and if they had converted another try then it might have been a different story, but certainly disappointed in the way they played in that second half and just lacked a bit of control in the game and stuff like that.
“Like I said there is still a lot of footy to go and once you get to knockout footy, everything is just completely different. Anything can happen further down the track but they will be just looking forward to getting some good performances under their belt under the next wee while.
“No matter who it is going to be in the quarter-finals, it is going to be a tough match. Once you get to the quarters and semis you take it one game at a time. Either way it’s going to be a bloody tough game and I don’t think they are going to worry who it is going to be. They are going to have to be able to focus on making sure that they are playing as best as possible by that stage.”
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